The architect of a Broome-based Timorese maritime training program claims WA pearl producer Clipper Pearls has exposed cadets to "extreme and unsafe" working conditions at sea, resulting in fatigue, sickness and injury.
In 2010, Timor-Leste Australia Development Facility chief executive Kevin Austin partnered Clipper Pearls to train 16 Timorese to become pearl divers and deckhands over two years under Australian employment and safety conditions.
A joint pilot program of the Australian and East Timorese governments, it was the first time foreigners had been allowed to do paid training in a primary industry in WA, using stream three of the 442 visa scheme.
Mr Austin has demanded an investigation into the safety and self-regulation of WA's $200 million pearling industry, claiming the Timorese were asked to meet excessive production targets.
He claims the cadets were forced to lift heavy double pearl shell panels that Australians had refused to lift for safety reasons.
He also claims the cadets' meals were delayed and work hours extended, resulting in sickness, injury and fatigue.
Mr Austin said Clipper Pearls had refused his requests to introduce critical safety measures, including standard operating procedures and checklists for duties at sea.
Complaints to Clipper Pearls' parent company, Autore Pearls, had resulted in the partnership being terminated.
He has since contacted WorkSafe and Fair Work Australia and briefed the Department of Immigration after two cadets were, he claimed, "unfairly terminated".
WorkSafe has confirmed it is investigating the claims.
This morning Clipper Pearls said it was "currently assisting Fair Work Australia and Work Safe WA with these persistent and unsubstantiated allegations".
"The company engages our employee’s daily on any work related issues, and the accusations made by the CEO of the facility are neither reciprocated nor initiated by the cadets," a statement from Clipper Pearls said. "The cadets are understandably extremely disappointed by the relevant media releases and news articles, which have clearly strained relations between them as a collective team, and the CEO of the Facility.
"We have constantly engaged Fair Work Australia, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the WA Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and in particular Work Safe WA to ensure we are compliant in all facets of visa responsibility, fair work regulations, Aquaculture Award advice and interpretation, and ultimately safe work practices.
"Our response and support from these government departments have been very positive in dealing with these issues, which we strongly believe will be finalized shortly."
Mr Austin said East Timor was keen to co-operate with Australia in aiding development of its marine and fishing industries but could not do so when conditions in the industry were "unsafe".